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CD review: Joe Meek

THE UK'S ANSWER TO PHIL SPECTOR. Pop pioneer and hit maker Joe Meek (bottom middle) hit the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

From 1956 to 1967, in his messy, filthy flat above a leather goods shop at 304 Holloway Rd in London, Joe Meek created some of the strangest sonic experimental pop ever heard (more than 300 singles, 45 of them top 50 or better). He invented the idea of the independence of pop by selling his finished products (songs he wrote, produced and engineered) to major labels. He was Britain’s answer to US whiz kid producer Phil Spector. Joe Meek was gay.

Robert George Meek was born on Apr 5, 1929. According to writer John McCready (Mccready.cwc.net) and Jon Savage in The Observer, Meek had two brutish older brothers. Meek’s mom wanted a girl and dressed him as one for years. “Joe should have been a girl,” his older brother Eric always said. “We used to call him a sissy.”

As a child he would stage magic shows and elaborate theatre productions for the neighbourhood kids. As a teen his fascination with old radios and record players became an obsession. He would take the backs off and build his own electrical gadgets.

He worked at the Midlands Electricity Board and as a sound engineer at Radio Luxembourg (where he showed his technical savvy on Humphrey Lyttelton’s 1956 jazz single “Bad Penny Blues”). After a tense stint at Denis Preston’s Lansdowne studio, Meek left Preston to make it on his own.

Cute young boys (and a few girls), lugging their guitars, amps and drum kits, would reluctantly climb up the rickety old stairs to Meek’s makeshift studio. Live wires would cover the floors. Engineering equipment would be gutted and manipulated to Meek’s specifications. A string section would play on the stairwell as Glenda Collins or golden boy Heinz would be singing in the bathroom. This would make Meek’s ever-annoyed landlady, Mrs Shenton, livid as she banged away for years with her broomstick to shut him and his kids up. “Rotten pig!” he’d continually exclaim.

This is where all the pioneering was done. Artificial multitracking, close miking, echo and reverb effects, distorting and manipulating sounds &mdash all Meek inventions. He couldn’t play an instrument or write notation so he had musicians transcribe recordings of his singing (you can download for free a zip file of 26 of these recordings at Comfortstand.com/catalog/037). These recordings are dazzling. Sure, he couldn’t sing worth a damn, but just listening to him sing “He’s All Mine” or “The Beat Of My Heart” will make you feel for him.

Though Meek was a studio wizard, he was a troubled man full of self-loathing, paranoia and slimming pills (that constantly kept him going). He was obsessed with UFOs, Buddy Holly (and his death), black magic and boys he couldn’t have. Writer Irwin Chusid dubbed the visionary Meek as “The Ed Wood of lo-fi.”

While making joyous hits like John Leyton’s UK number one “Johnny Remember Me” or the biggest instrumental hit of all time, The Tornados’ “Telstar,” Meek was flirting with his boys. They were all pretty much teenaged, good-looking and muscular. His favourite was Heinz, the German bass player for The Tornados. He was a hot stylish boy whom Meek groomed into a bleach-blond, tight-pants Meeksville superstar. They were apparently lovers though Heinz denied this (Heinz died in 2000).

They Were Wrong! Joe’s Boys Volume One is a newly released two-CD compilation featuring 38 sides unavailable elsewhere on CD plus 11 previously unreleased tracks and a pair of Meek’s own immortal demos. These are the boys Meek lusted after, had sex with or just made music with, singing Meek’s lyrics of longing and heartbreak. It’s a real complex listen. And mostly it’s great fun.

Heinz’s “Come On Let’s Go” is a raunchy ditty with surf guitars, a heady bass line and Heinz’s unbelievably sexy rasp.

“Well squeeze me/ Squeeze me/ All the way down there,” he sings.

George Chakiris’s (yes, he of West Side Story) “Heart Of A Teenager Girl” is a corny confection with a girl chorus singing along with the lounge lizard vocals of Chakiris. It’s a hoot.

Both hilarious and stunning is John Leyton’s effervescent “Johnny, My Johnny.” Leyton’s soft velvety voice sings, “I hear the voice of the one I love/ Calling me/ Calling me still.” A female voice chimes in singing like a… well… teen angel. “Johnny/ My Johnny/ Please come to me/ Never to leave my side.”

It’s a heavenly recording. All of the tunes on this compilation are moody and inventive, just like its creator. But the last tune is a sad thing. It’s Meek singing a demo, “I’ve Been Good To You.” You feel his insanity, brilliance, despair and romanticism. There’s a lot to take in. “My tears are all worn out/ And no one gets through/ Whatever you say/ Whatever you do/ Oh, baby/ I’ve been good to you.”

With homosexuality still illegal in Britain, Meek was charged with “importuning for immoral purposes” in 1963 (we now call it bathroom sex) and was subjected to blackmail. In ’67, Suffolk police found the mutilated body of alleged rent boy, Bernard Oliver, in a suitcase. Meek was concerned that he would be involved in the investigation since the boy was a “friend.”

With financial ruin before him and paranoia overtaking him, on Feb 3, 1967 (the eighth anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death), Meek took Heinz’s single-barreled shotgun, shot and killed his landlady and then himself. He was only 38.